How Grand Rapids small business owners reopen amid racial strife and COVID-19

Jermale Eddie holds his family close every morning before he heads out to make deliveries.

After running the Malamiah Juice Bar since 2013, Eddie knows his customers appreciate having fresh juice delivered to their homes while most restaurants are still closed. As a person of color, he also knows what racial prejudices can lead to when someone sees a stranger walking up to their neighbor's house.

"In back of my mind, I'm thinking about it when I'm going to a neighborhood to deliver juice to the side door or to the back door or to the front door, wherever their instructions say," he says. "Hopefully their neighbor doesn't think I'm an intruder."

Eddie is in the process of purchasing bright new T-shirts and uniforms that show the Malamiah Juice Bar logo in orange, decals for his vehicle, and new packaging to avoid any conflict.

"I try to make sure that when I'm carrying a bag of juice that 'Malamiah Juice Bar' is on the outside of our bag," he says. "When they see that, it's like you're safer, which is pretty unfortunate. But I want my business to flourish, and I want to be someone who motivates potential entrepreneurs of color."

Eddie moved to Allendale in 1999 to attend Grand Valley State University. He moved to Grand Rapids in 2002. As a black American, a business owner, father, husband, and community member, Eddie says that until recently he has seen the effects of social unrest and hatred online far more frequently than out in the open.

"I'm seeing it on social media directed at people who look like me," he says. "I find myself watching my back, or looking around when I hear something. When I walk up to my business I'm looking on top of buildings and just wondering and hoping nobody's out there that wants to cause harm to me, or cause harm to my kids and other people who look like me. Now, I'm really alert."

Until November 2019 Eddie and his wife were serving fresh fruit and vegetable juice to guests at the Grand Rapids Downtown Market. They moved into their new space at Studio Park in December, just months before the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic forced a change of plans. His business has adapted, like many others, in order to continue to save his customers. During our conversation, he stopped to make a delivery, adding that customer service is just as much a part of the Malamiah experience as the juice.

Eddie says the social distancing guidelines may have actually increased his business because more people outside the Grand Rapids area learn about Malamiah's new delivery service and have juice delivered across the state by FedEx. He is also trying to support that momentum, making sure interest in black-owned businesses doesn't wane as calls for racial equity and the Black Lives Matter movement are supplanted by the next news cycle.

"I don't want black purchasing which has been great over the last couple of days to fade away," he says. "We've always been here. We're not new. I don't want to be a flavor of the week or flavor of the month. I want people to say, 'okay, we're gonna start supporting you guys,' and to keep it going."

Eddie says he's noticed people making more eye contact in public since face masks became a necessity. It's harder to tell if someone is smiling, but small business owners have more reason not to lately. Eddie is frustrated with potentially having to turn customers away to meet the state's distancing guidelines while his bills remain the same each month. He's already paying more for many of the perishable goods used in Malamiah's menu and an endless stream of face masks and disposable gloves. He points out that new Plexiglas barriers at points of sale can be an inconvenient cost, but while cash cannot be accepted for fear of spreading disease, credit card companies are claiming a percentage of each purchase.
(From left to right) Tiffany Thornton of Tiffany Eden Designs, Tyler Doornbos and Meg Goeman of Well Design, and Jermale Eddie.
"As many employers/business owners put TONS of money  energy into re-opening your business, I urge you to Check on you Black employees," Eddie posted to the Members of Local First Facebook Group. "Most are experiencing a certain level of trauma & pain that many in this group will never understand...yet those employees may walk around with a smile b/c they want to keep their job or don’t want to be looked at as 'the problem.' We might seem like we are 'back to business as usual,' but we are not!"

Linda Otterbridge has been working to connect entrepreneurs to the resources and opportunities they need to thrive since 2012. Her own project, the Hook A Sista Up Collaborative, provides women entrepreneurs a platform for connection and engagement, and more recently tools to combat mental stress. Otterbridge primarily connects with her network through the HASU Facebook Group, which has grown in activity as many of its members, Otterbridge included, have lost their full-time jobs due to pandemic-related resizing.

Zoom meetings have replaced in-person meetups, but Otterbridge still manages to motivate the other women in her network during their regular "accountability check-ins." They talk about goal setting, job opportunities, and often share their pains. Otterbridge has been helping more of her colleagues through the employment process recently, which can take a month or more to process.

"That disruption caused problems with income and how we sustain our livelihood and businesses," she says.

Another woman came to Otterbridge moved to tears after months of denied grant applications. She is working full-time, but doesn't have the income to secure a business loan.

"She said she was just frustrated and tired, and that's the main thing I'm getting from the women I keep in touch with," Otterbridge says. "They're tired and they're frustrated with the pandemic. They're trying to keep their businesses afloat." 

The cataclysmic forces of the COVID-19 pandemic have been punctuated by social unrest, and even in Grand Rapids, the use of military force in the face of American citizens protesting racial inequality. There is little doubt that 2020 will be marked as a turning point in the history of the United States, for better or worse. 

Otterbridge hopes for better, but not everyone can remain so optimistic.

"It's killing dreams and hopes," she says. "Everybody's just so tired, so emotionally depleted, being able to keep our own spirits up through this."

Otterbridge remembers crawling into a shell the day she read about the killing of George Floyd. Later, she was scrolling through Facebook and saw the image of police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd's neck. 

"I was trying to stay away from it," she says. "I happened to see the picture and I could not get out of the car for I don't know how long. I felt numb. For three days after that I couldn't function. I couldn't do anything. I just went off the grid."

It took some effort to "muster up the energy" to reconnect with her network, Otterbridge says, but she knew that there were many others feeling the same. That's when she found Dr. Gaynel Nave ND. Otterbridge shared Dr. Nave's Instagram Live event with her network and encouraged them to join and share on Fridays in May. Otterbridge, who previously worked with the behavioral health counseling center at Cherry Health, has since reached out to other mental health professionals to interact with the group, too. Linda Otterbridge

Otterbridge is originally from Baton Rouge, La., where she says racism is less subtle than she's experienced in West Michigan. But there's no difference in its impact.

"Wherever you want to call it, the cloud of racism s is still there," she says. "Maybe it's just in retreat mode. It's like a pimple hidden under the skin and it's gonna come up."

In the meantime, Otterbridge is helping her network stay grounded. Between organizing online events and helping her sisters through their business struggles, she finds time to connect with them as humans.

I ask everybody how they are doing. How's today going? What are you doing to get out? Are you walking for exercise? How's your garden going?" she says. "I'm using my platform for that. Just to share resources and check on people to see how we're doing."

Among the resources available to small business owners in Grand Rapids are a few new programs outlined in the city's Smart Restart Agenda. The plan has been approved by the Grand Rapids Chamber Board of Directors and pending Governor Whitmer's signature, could soon be fully implemented.

At the local level, the priorities outlined in the Agenda include: 
  • Property tax deferment - Summer property taxes could be deferred until 2021.
  • PPE accessibility - “PPE kits” for small businesses to use when they return to work along with guidance on best practices.
  • Regulatory flexibility - Expanded "social districts" that extend the liquor licenses to outdoor public spaces including converted parks or parklets, parking lots or streets.
  • Cash flow support - "In addition to our Foundation’s Rapid Response Fund, we are also providing input into how federal, county and local dollars are used to support businesses in need and exploring every idea to allow for greater revenue generation in a safe way," the agenda states.
"We hope to quickly get this through the House and into the Senate," says Joshua Lunger Sr. Director of Government Affairs for the City of Grand Rapids. "We've got tremendous business districts downtown and along the key corridors. We've got a thriving restaurant scene that is in need of the space to serve the customer sector employees, and hopefully we can get back to work and make money again, as soon as the opportunity happens."

For some business owners, the city has set up some critical support systems that will help them maintain operations and staff until the pandemic disruption subsides. Eddie says he hopes the assistance can help businesses throughout the city of Grand Rapids, including those outside the downtown area. 

Living in the Madison Square neighborhood in the Third Ward, Eddie says he doesn't see the same investment in his community as some of the other wards have had. 

“I'm grateful to hear about the restart plans that are being put in place," he says. "I want to see a vibrant downtown. I want everyone to be welcome and want to come here, but I don't want it to be at the detriment of the businesses and organizations and colleagues that are outside of the downtown area."

As such, he works even harder to get his colleagues the resources they need. He stayed up into the middle of the night emailing other business owners about PPE equipment to make sure they didn't miss a critical deadline. 

"Yes, I'm trying to do as much helping as I can. It's not just about running my juice bar, but it's about the business community as a whole. And I'm really more concerned with black-owned and minority businesses and their survival."

Paul Lee, who with his family/partners in All-In-Hospitality now co-own four restaurants on Wealthy Street, says he doesn't see the initiative befitting his businesses as much as they would eateries with no outdoor eating space, but supports any effort to assist local restaurants.Paul Lee, photo by Adam Bird.

"The industry as a whole needs as much support as it can get," Lee says. "I believe that a rising tide lifts all boats."

It was just days after opening Royals that social distancing rules were first put in place. The latest addition to All-In-Hospitality with a breakfast and brunch menu focused on American comfort foods, Royals can accommodate several dozen diners indoors, but those seats have remained empty since March.

"During the first couple weeks, it felt like every day was a year," Lee says. "You just went to bed absolutely exhausted. But at the same time, you couldn't sleep because your mind is just racing. 

While indoor seating was prohibited, Lee adapted his restaurants to offer contact-less carry out. His businesses have been feeling the economic pinch that other restaurants have. Flexibility and streamlined service has helped All-In-Hospitality weather the first quarter of 2020, but it may take much more to bounce back completely.

Lee says his primary focus is figuring out how to get outside spaces to operate at 50% and providing pathways for people to reach restrooms. He's considered offering outdoor only service. 

"If it rained, unfortunately we would be closed except for the regular takeout and carry out. But, we will probably do that for a few weeks to allow us to get our feet underneath ourselves, build up the staff again, build up the business, and then look at what's happening. We're optimistic, but we're also very cautious about what the future looks like."

Truthfully, it may not look the same ever again.

"A lot of places were already struggling to get by," Lee says. "We're thinking about, well, if things do reopen, why would we ever want to go back to that? Why don't we use this as an opportunity to think differently?"

Thinking differently is a practice that has effected great change in the past and there is no denying its importance now. What these entrepreneurs have proven is that the best plan is often a willingness to be flexible, lean on your community, and sustain.

“When this all happened, you didn’t have a lot of time to sit there and think about what you're going to do next,” Otterbridge says. “I know a lot of the ladies in our group ask, what are you going to do when a disruption comes? Not just competitors but things that disrupt the entire market.”

Disruption has come, gone, and come again. This story is far from over, but the next few chapters have yet to be written. 

“Things are changing so quickly, and people have had to go beyond with new products, or creating a new niche in the market that they weren't looking for,” Otterbridge says. “But they created those things very quickly.”

“You do what you can do,” she continues. “But I'm telling you, these entrepreneurs have surprised me.”

Images courtesy of Malamiah Juice Bar and Linda Otterbridge, unless otherwise stated.
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